Alex Zielinski

Art Rios has never seen the sidewalks of Portland‘s Old Town neighborhood this empty.

“Yesterday, there were nine tents on this block,” said Rios Thursday morning, looking out from Do Good Multnomah’s Downtown Shelter onto NW 6th Ave by NW Hoyt. “Now there’s just one. The rest—gone.”

Rios is a program manager of the downtown shelter, which operates inside a former Greyhound Station in Old Town. In his past year working for the nonprofit, Rios has observed the city’s changing approach to clearing homeless encampments on Old Town sidewalks, as sweep restrictions tied to COVID-19 have loosened. That change includes an accelerated pace of campsite sweeps in the past several months, conducted by employees of Rapid Response Bio Clean on behalf of the city.

According to Mayor Ted Wheeler, this acceleration was a trial run of the type of homeless sweeps he’d like to see across the city in the wake of the pandemic.

“I’m proud to say we are turning the tide,” said Wheeler at a Tuesday press conference with the Old Town Community Association, a group of neighbors and property owners who challenged the city to “reopen” Old Town through graffiti clean-ups, tent sweeps, and increased cop patrols over the past three months.

“This neighborhood is our incubator,” he continued. “I think we have a very good formula here and I look forward to using it across the city."

Business owners cheered the erasure of homeless campers from their neighborhood Tuesday. The update came after months of property owners and business groups pressing City Hall to make their neighborhood more appealing to tourists, customers, and renters in the wake of the pandemic’s economic downturn.

“The mayor’s office showed up for us,” said Jessie Burke, owner of The Society Hotel in Old Town. “They are navigating this process together with us and have gone to great lengths to try and make meaningful change using creative methods to help our community.”

But the celebration Tuesday was paired with an eerie layer of silence across the surrounding blocks left in the wake of the mass eviction.

A total of 343 tents have been cleared from Old Town blocks in April and May, according to the city. Eighty-seven of the people living in those tents were referred to a shelter bed—but it’s unknown how many of those individuals actually moved into shelter. To accommodate this influx, the Joint Office of Homeless Services made sure 92 additional shelter beds across county shelters were made available.

"I think we have a very good formula here and I look forward to using it across the city." - Mayor Ted Wheeler

Rios has witnessed the toll this process has had on unhoused Portlanders first hand in recent weeks, as he rushes out to help people hurriedly pack up their belongings when the Rapid Response clean-up trucks arrive or when he processes intake applications for new shelter guests who’ve just had their campsite swept.

“It’s a lot of crying,” Rios recalls. “A lot of people who say they had just started over again after being swept a few weeks ago, people asking, ‘Why can’t the city leave me alone?’”

Rios said he’s also encountered many people who’ve only become homeless recently, due to job loss or loss of an income-making family member during the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are traumatized, and they don’t understand the system,” said Rios. “They don’t know why everything they own has been taken by the city, or how to retrieve it. The learning curve is difficult.”

Lauren Armony, a community organizer with Sisters of the Road, said that a camp sweep often stokes violence in groups of unhoused people.

“After a sweep, people are amped up to 12 out of 10,” said Armony. “People are out trying to steal sleeping bags and blankets from other people since theirs were just taken by Rapid [Response]. It puts people in a really vulnerable situation, where they can be preyed upon. I once saw someone come out with a machete trying to defend themself after a sweep.”

Armony said she noticed a number of tents swept along the parade route in Old Town for the Starlight Parade shortly before the June 4 event.

In some instances, property owners see camp sweeps as an opportunity to put something on the sidewalk previously inhabited by tents to prevent them from returning. Earlier this month, a row of 22 bike racks appeared on an Old Town sidewalk along NW Broadway after a camp sweep.

On Wednesday, Armony pointed to a new row of planters lining the sidewalk on the west side of NW 6th Ave between NW Everett and NW Davis, in front of a building owned by Pendleton. “Those are all brand new,” Armony said. "They went up right after a sweep."

A notice of a planned campsite sweep posted in Portlands Old Town neighborhood.
A notice of a planned campsite sweep posted in Portland's Old Town neighborhood. Alex Zielinski

Later that afternoon, a 53-year-old man who asked to be identified as “J” said he had been forced to move four times in the past two weeks in Old Town. J lost his job as a car salesman at the start of the pandemic, and his teenage criminal record has made it difficult for him to get work or an apartment since. That challenge has been exacerbated by the fact that someone recently stole his driver’s license from his tent. J said he feels safer sleeping in Old Town compared to other parts of the city due to the increased police presence. But it’s the constant uprooting due to campsite sweeps that have kept him from getting his footing.

“If I was stable for just one week, with access to a shower, I could get a new license, I could start applying to jobs, I could find a way to pay rent,” said J. “But they won’t let us be.”

Before clearing an Old Town encampment, the city said it sent outreach workers to meet with the camp's residents to connect people with shelter beds or other needed social services.

J said he has declined invitations to stay at a shelter—his experience in jail at 16 made him averse to confined spaces with many other people. He'd prefer to find a steady income source that would allow him to move into his own apartment.

The new pace of encampment clearings is the result of the city's investment in a program dubbed the Street Services Coordination Center (SSCC), which addresses homelessness "like we would any other large-scale emergency," according to Skyler Brocker-Knapp, a senior policy advisor in Wheeler's office.

That means creating a new structure of command, where offices involved in homelessness solutions can better coordinate their efforts. Wheeler fast-tracked the creation of the SSCC through an emergency order in March, which places the efforts under his office's control.

"From shelter coordinators and outreach workers to certified paramedics and law enforcement officers, we have staff to meet all the needs that might arise," said Brocker-Knapp. "This level of partnership and coordination hasn’t been utilized in Portland before."

Brocker-Knapp said the biggest need outreach staff have observed is access to substance abuse treatment facilities and addiction counselors, due to the high rate of people living outside with a substance abuse disorder. While she said the city can send people to low barrier shelters—or, shelters that don't require resident sobriety—"It’s not nearly enough to meet the demand."

Chris Barnes, 39, has been living on Old Town sidewalks with his girlfriend for about a year. Because of the increased sweeps, Barnes has had to move their tent three times in the past two weeks. While he’d like to move outside of where the city is focusing its cleanup efforts, he has a hard time getting very far.

“I have a broken foot,” said Barnes, sitting in a camp chair outside of his tent Wednesday. “And, because shopping carts aren’t allowed on the MAX, I don’t have any way to move our stuff.”

Gregory Pierce, 61, has similar limitations. Pierce has been in a wheelchair for the past year while living outside. He’s been told to move no less than five times in the past month. Before the last sweep, Pierce said an employee of Portland Fire and Rescue came by and told him he could get Pierce into a shelter if he just waited a few hours. The man never returned.

“I’m out here by myself, and moving isn’t easy,” said Pierce. “I’d love to go somewhere where I don’t have to move every couple days. It’s tearing me up.”

Pierce said other outreach workers have visited him and promised help, but according to Pierce, “They call numbers and no one answers their calls and that’s it.” It’s led him to lose trust in anyone from the city who says they can help him move out of a tent.

"I’d love to go somewhere where I don’t have to move every couple days. It’s tearing me up.” - Gregory Pierce, unhoused Portlander

While some of those living in Old Town tents may have moved into a shelter after a sweep, many of them just relocated to areas outside the neighborhood boundaries.

After a May sweep of their Old Town camp left Timothy Davis and his partner Tammy with nearly half of their possessions gone, the couple and their small dog Peso relocated to an empty lot in the Lloyd District. It’s city policy to hold onto all possessions taken during a campsite sweep and store them for up to 30 days in a city-owned warehouse. While Tammy and Timothy have collected a few pieces of property, they say that much of what was taken from their Old Town camp isn’t at the warehouse.

“We’re missing a huge tub of clothing, including some sentimental items,” said Tammy. “We’re missing comforters, a grill, and a bunch of other things. It makes starting over that much harder.”

Tammy and Timothy have tried to move into couples shelters run by the county, but said they’re told there’s never enough room. They’ve also been turned away at shelters for having a dog. These hurdles have kept them living outside far longer than they’d like. Sweeps only worsen the situation.

“People ask us why we haven’t found work, why we haven’t found a job,” said Timothy. “But how does anyone expect that if the city asks us to move every other day?”

Tammy said that the stress of a looming sweep is so stressful that it makes her “just want to crawl under a rock.”

“And it puts a strain on our relationship,” Timothy added.

Timothy said he used to believe that Mayor Wheeler genuinely wanted to help homeless Portlanders. But his office’s actions don’t seem in alignment with the campaign promises Timothy heard from Wheeler in the past. He said that if the city was interested in genuinely helping people living outside, they would pause the sweeps to give people the stability needed to meet with a case worker, apply for a job, or seek housing assistance without the fear of their home being confiscated while they’re away.

“It’s psychological warfare, that’s what Ted Wheeler is doing with these sweeps,” Timothy said.

Rios, at the Do Good Multnomah shelter, believes the best solution to abate Portland's homeless encampments is to offer their tenants immediate housing. He said he hears a lot of unhoused people saying that they have been promised housing through different service providers, but that it won't be available for another month, or two months, or a year.

"I’d like to see outreach teams asking people, 'What if I can get you into housing no later than tomorrow evening?'" said Rios. "And then once they're in housing, make sure they have peer support for what's next. Help them get furniture, get settled, get their IDs—whatever. It would go a long way."

This idea of supportive housing is already somewhat underway in Portland, through Metro's Supportive Housing Services tax fund. Yet the program operates through grants to different nonprofits that do outreach with homeless Portlanders, and isn't yet offering the kind of immediate reprieve Rios suggests.

The city will soon be leaning more on another housing alternative for Portlanders threatened with sweeps: Safe Rest Villages. These villages, dispersed across the city, offer a legal place for unhoused people to rest—in small sleeping pods—and store their property, with the intention of connecting visitors with more permanent housing supports in the process. Three of those villages, which offer 30 to 40 pods, are currently up and running, including two villages that previously operated as emergency outdoor shelters at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Four more are expected to open later this year.

Brocker-Knapp with the mayor's office said Portlanders can expect this level of camp clearings if the SSCC continues to be renewed under Wheeler's emergency order.

"Through the continued coordination of services under the leadership of Mayor Wheeler," she said, "we will be able to keep the momentum to address the homeless crisis with compassion across the city of Portland."